20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom photo starrating-4stars.jpgEver want to know more about the people who sing backup vocals on your favorite hit songs? No? Well to be quite honest, neither did I. Or so I thought.  That’s the beauty of this documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a subject of vague interest and makes it captivating. On display are the contributors that rarely get mentioned, save for the microscopic print of the liner notes on an album. It’s a fascinating watch. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t purport to tell the story of all supplementary vocalists. What it does do is delve into a sampling of the prolific talent that has been harmonizing on songs you’ve loved for years but never knew who sang those secondary parts.

I suppose in some way this presentation speaks for all backup singers as it tells these stories, but it specifically recounts the detailed histories of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega. Every tale is unique with a distinct take and their own remarkable window into the world of popular music. The rationale for why these performers never became household names are multilayered and vary. For some perhaps racism and/or sexism. In others maybe just dumb luck. A simple lack of a desire to seize the spotlight is even suggested. In the case of Darlene Love, there was the megalomaniacal (albeit gifted) Phil Spector to contend with. Only one ego in the room please. Her drama is especially heartbreaking in the sense she sang on some of the most beloved songs without nary a credit. She along with Fanita James and Jean King, were founding members of The Blossoms. The trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and countless others. They notably recorded the #1 hit song “He’s a Rebel” but Spector released that single under The Crystals, a completely different group, so Love and her fellow Blossoms never got the recognition or the stardom they deserved. Yet Love’s story inspires happiness nonetheless. They became first call, A-list session singers, highly in demand. Their voices are still infectious today. They are permitted to sing here and their talent speaks volumes that words cannot.

I always instinctively assume that the background vocals belong to the group/entourage associated with the artist on the single. But in many instances they are hired guns that come in, lay down their vocal tracks and then move on to the next gig. Director Morgan Neville’s document gently suggests various reasons for their lack of fame but allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. In the meantime we’re treated to some of the best music of the 20th century. These vocalists have worked with the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. Many of these legends appear singing the praises of these unheralded talents. By and large, the chronicle is an uplifting tribute. There’s something exhilarating in seeing these artists get their due. It’s amazing how pervasive their contributions are to pop culture. For example the Waters Family were featured on “Thriller”, “The Circle of Life” and even recorded dino-bird sounds for Avatar.  There are at least half a dozen sagas here that command your attention. Each performer could highlight their own movie. Perhaps none more so than that of Darlene Love. Her story is one of frustration, perseverance and ultimately joy. That’s the ultimate message of this wonderful film.

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22 Responses to “20 Feet From Stardom”

  1. Great review, Mark. Never heard of this one before but it definitely sounds interesting.

  2. What a great trip into the lives of the singers we hear and not often see. So many great songs used back ups that were very memorable. I was very entertained by this. 4 stars.

  3. I am diffinitely going to see this one. I love documentaries and this one sounds like it has a very interesting subject. It is often difficult to understand why one talent succeeds to capture fame and another doesn’t. It seems to rest on much than talent alone.

  4. This does look interesting. I’ll have to check it out.

  5. This sounds like a good one Mark! I quite like music-themed documentaries, thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  6. GaryLee828 Says:

    Hey, sometimes it’s way better to be in the background than the spotlight; you still get to travel the world on tour and you may not be earning riches as the headline act, but you have a job you love with much less pressure, and you can go out in public without many people recognizing you. Not a bad gig! 🙂

    I will have to check this out when it becomes available.

    • You’re right. Not a bad gig. Most of them craved the spotlight in this documentary, but there’s at least one of the backup singers that is quite thankful for her wonderful life.

  7. Sounds like a fascinating documentary Mark. I’ve been hearing positive reviews of it and I’m glad to see yours is no exception. One of the best things a documentary can do is to shed light on a subject or person that wouldn’t get exposure or recognition otherwise. It seems like this one is very successful in that goal. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have good music haha. I definitely need to check this one out at some point.

  8. I think you hit the nail on the head with this review. It’s remarkable how the film takes something you never considered and [rightfully] spins it into one of the most important aspects of popular culture. Really awesome stuff.

  9. I just recently finished watching all of the Oscar nominated docs, so I’m looking up your reviews of them. I always find it interesting reading what you think of the movies I’ve seen. 😉

    This one is a very good review. And again I agree. While I don’t think 20 Feet ever quite transcends the music documentary genre, I do think it is a very good. Love and Hill’s stories are particularly fascinating.

    • This documentary feature category is notoriously hard to predict at the Oscars. I could see any of the nominees winning including this one.

      • Definitely another category that surprises. My money is on The Act of Killing, but I could see The Square winning, as well. Both are excellent (and earned A grades from me). This one wouldn’t totally stun me, but I would be a bit surprised.

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